OPINION: In the days before Christmas, one of New Zealand's busiest gateways, Ports of Auckland (POA), was beset by industrial stoppages. The Maritime Union, which has so far mounted four 48-hour strikes, has vowed to strike again next week.
It is so long since the waterfront has been held to ransom like this that the disruption has made headlines and, in newspaper advertisements, POA chief executive Tony Gibson has apologised to customers while also detailing the terms of his latest offer, "the ninth since negotiations began". They include a 10 per cent increase in the hourly rate, performance bonuses of up to 20 per cent, retention of existing benefits and provisions, and "full operational flexibility for Ports of Auckland". No doubt the last is causing unionists most angst. It would allow port management, not them, to manage the business.
The problem has echoes of last year's Qantas kerfuffle, during which chief executive Alan Joyce took the astonishing step of grounding the fleet worldwide after he and the board could not get the unions involved - including well-paid pilots - to acknowledge the challenges facing international airlines.
In these times, the POA offer looks generous. The average annual wage of an Auckland wharfie is about $91,480 - reportedly for a 26-hour week, employees and their families get free medical insurance, and three weeks sick leave entitlement is written into contracts. They also get five weeks annual leave.
The Productivity Commission last year embarked on an inquiry into international freight transport services, which includes sea ports as well as airports. It must report to the Government by April. One question it has posed is to what extent "inflexible labour practices and difficulties in employer-union relationships" remain an obstacle to improving efficiency and productivity at ports. It is not too hard to imagine that because POA is wholly owned by a left-wing council, its owners have no appetite for an overdue stoush with their trade union friends. The same might be true elsewhere.
Other commission questions also go to the operational heart of the ports business. It asks, for example, what impact local authority ownership of majority stakes in commercial ports has had on the development of a more efficient and productive port sector. CentrePort, for one, seems to be as much a property-development company as it is an enterprise based on imports and exports, though neither owner - Greater Wellington regional council and the Palmerston North-Wanganui equivalent - seems to care. Their ratepayers should.
Though it is mildly diverting to watch from this distance a rerun of 1970 and 80s waterfront strikes in the north, the commission spells out just how inflated freight costs - whatever their cause - increase the price that New Zealanders pay for imported goods, as well as lower the price paid to exporters for their goods. Has the commission the courage to recommend root-and-branch reform? And if it does, will new Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee have the courage to act on it? All Kiwis should hope so.